Hope Floats

The Gryphon crew take on the privileged few in the Cape to Rio Yacht Race

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

While it’s not very fashionable to celebrate the awfully colonial sport of yachting when we’re living in a time of decolonisation (what next, ponies and polo?), The Way of Us visited the Royal Cape Yacht Club nonetheless. That’s because when the 44th edition of the iconic Cape to Rio Yacht Race starts in the waters of Table Bay on January 1st 2017, one of those teams will be made up of a crew from Harbour Heights and Grassy Park.

The Way of Us spoke to two young competitors ahead of Maserati Cape Town Race Week and The Cape to Rio – Daniel Agulhas, a 22-year-old with six years sailing experience competing in local dinghy and keelboat events and Lorenzo Yon, a 17-year-old student and the youngest of a crew that includes the older brother that introduced him to the sport. Simon's Town to Mosselbay is the longest Lorenzo’s ever sailed, but if he’s nervous about taking on a 3500 nautical mile transatlantic race – the longest of its kind – he doesn’t show it.

Their yacht, Gryphon, is a 43-foot racing sloop, updated and modified to ensure that she is a competitive sailboat. The crew refurbished the second-hand boat themselves with the objective being to put in as much time with her on land because once you’re on the water you need to trust in your boat and know why something has happened and what you need to do to fix it.

It’s also a way of choosing the crew, and it was the same people who put in the months of maintenance work who were chosen to sail her.

“For me,” says Daniel. “I started sailing for the love of travel after I saw how it was a way to see the rest of South Africa and even places outside of the country. I remember in primary school this guy went to Port Elizabeth and I said, ‘Well, that’s how I’m going to get around. By sailing.’”

The sport grabbed Daniel after joining the dinghy programme at Zeekoevlei, and while it’s a big transition leaving a freshwater lake on the Cape Flats for the uncertainty of the sea, Daniel has formed a deep love of the ocean.

“When you’re out at sea it’s just water all around you, proper waves, the wind’s much stronger and you’re all on your own. I love it.”

Like Daniel, Lorenzo started sailing on a dinghy before graduating to an ocean-going yacht. While the dynamics are very different, he says that this introduction has given him a much more holistic approach to sailing and that ever since his older brother Theo introduced him to sailing, the experience has left everything else in its wake.

“I tried other sports,” says Lorenzo. “Those didn’t work out so well. Maybe because when I started sailing I didn’t really want to do anything else.”

The biggest difference between a racing yacht and a regular yacht is that you need a crew to man a racing yacht. When sailing at your leisure you have the luxury of an hour to perform a manouvre, but when racing you need to execute the same thing in 30 seconds.

“Lorenzo and I work together,” explains Daniel. “There’s actually three of us at the front of the boat. Someone who will call a sail and Lorenzo and I must then plug it in and control the front from the mast. The young guys are always up front because that’s where you get the most wet and where the most work is.”

The entire team works in shifts where they're on for four hours and off for eight. When you’re off you’re not really “off” and are doing things like fixing sails, cooking, keeping the boat dry and strapping yourself into a hotbed that you share with seven other guys in order to try and get some sleep.

The Gryphon has been built like a stock car where everything is stripped away in order to make it as light as possible. It’s not a very fancy affair and the toilet is actually strapped shut in fear of having to deal with plumbing complications mid-race - and so everything is done off the side of the boat. Otherwise, there’s a two plate cooker, a camping fridge, freeze-dried rations, extra sails, maintenance kits, some storage nooks and then lots of open sea.

Racing a yacht is all about problem-solving, and with the chances of something going wrong being quite high, sailors must be able to keep a cool head. The youngsters say that the trick is to manage and delegate what needs to be done in order to keep everyone safe and to resolve any problem.

“Everyone knows his job and has a mutual respect for everyone else and their job,” says Daniel. “We’re friends before we leave and we want to be friends when we arrive, too.”

After the race it’s back to reality where Lorenzo is in school and Daniel runs a development centre in Grassy Park, where he invites schools from the Cape Flats to take part in a learn-to-sail programme. And why not, the sea and sailing itself level the playing field in that you can be from whatever background. On the water you’re faced with the same elements as everyone else, and its up to you to make the boat work harder so you can sail faster.

And sure it’s daunting when competing against someone whose dad and grandfather were in the Olympics, and someone who will probably end up at the Olympics, too, but on the water all of that doesn’t matter.

The Gryphon will start the New Year taking on crews and yachts that have won the Volvo Ocean Race, competed at the Olympics and are racing from a position of million dollar campaigns. 

Given their boat, the crew and all the preparation they’ve put in, the right decisions at crucial times in the race could see the young men profiled here winning this thing. The ocean is the great leveller after all. But even if they don’t win, having come this far is enough of an achievement.

The Gryphon’s inclusion in the starting lineup is a major inspiration – not only will it be crossing oceans, it's helping the crew to transcend social barriers as well.